What is a jet registered to Bank of Utah doing in Iran?
Mystery continues to swirl around a small jet spotted in recent days at an airport in Iran and registered to Ogden-based Bank of Utah.
The Bombardier Challenger 600, seen Tuesday in an open portion of Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, is one of hundreds owned by the community bank under aircraft trusts, complex financial instruments which hold title to a plane on behalf of beneficiaries whose identity remains confidential.
Also unknown is whether activities connected with this particular aircraft, whose presence in Iran was first reported by The New York Times, may violate U.S. or European restrictions on doing business with the Iranian government, a target of tough economic sanctions related to its nuclear programs.
An official for Bank of Utah confirmed Friday that the small aircraft seen in Iran was registered under one of its trusts and said the bank had determined who the beneficiary is, but declined to provide details under tight regulations governing the complex arrangement.
"Many financial services are confidential and this is not unlike that," Bank of Utah spokesman Scott Parkinson said.
The bank, with 13 branches in Utah, maintains no operational control of or financial interest in the jet, said Parkinson, who noted that all its aircraft trusts include clear prohibitions against illegal activity. He said the exact legal status of the jet in Iran would be determined by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. State Department.
The Bombardier Challenger 600, 68 feet long with a 64-foot wingspan, is billed by its maker, Canadair-owned Bombardier Aerospace, as belonging to a family of business jets.
FAA records show the jet seen in Tehran was issued a corporate registration certificate on Sept. 24, 2013.
Other clues abound, generated by an ardent online community of jet trackers worldwide.
Sightings put a Bombardier Challenger with the same FAA registration number, N604EP, in Luton, England, 30 miles north of London, on Oct. 1 and Feb. 16. A photo posted online claimed to locate the same aircraft at an airport in Accra, Ghana, on Jan. 3. And it was ostensibly seen in Zurich, Switzerland, near the site of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 22.
The FAA told The Times this week it had no information about the investors in the aircraft or who was operating it.
The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the federal government's chief enforcer of sanctions against Iran, did not comment to The Times on the plane's presence in Iran. Under U.S. law, according to a Times story, American aircraft usually need prior approval from the Treasury to go to Iran, in keeping with a network of rules governing trade.
Iranian officials and a spokesman for Iran's United Nations mission in New York also reportedly declined to comment on the jet.
Aircraft owner trusts allow buyers, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens, to own, maintain and operate aircraft legally registered with the FAA while still remaining outside the public eye as they travel.
Records kept by the FAA link as many as 1,172 aircraft to Bank of Utah, ranging from single-engine Cessnas and Lear jets to large Boeing 767s. The Ogden bank appears to be a national leader in this type of aircraft trust, according to a search of the FAA's database of aircraft ownership.
Though primarily a traditional community bank, Bank of Utah advertises "extensive experience" in aircraft trusts, as part of what Parkinson described as a "very robust" line of trust and wealth-management services.
"In terms of our bread and butter, we're very much a commercial lending, small-business bank," Parkinson said. "But this is a line of business we've chosen to specialize in that allows us to compete with larger banks."